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2 June 2005 Edition

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Daylight robbery

BY LAURA FRIEL

"They've done it AGAIN, hostages taken as IRA snatch £200,000 from Boots," ran the front-page headlines of the Sunday Life. "The IRA is the key suspect", and continuing inside, "Raid points towards the IRA."

"IRA-style raid nets £200,000," declared Sunday Times. "Unionists have warned of "very serious political consequences" if the IRA was behind a robbery at Boots department store in Belfast city centre," announced Liam Clarke.

"Republicans blamed for copy-cat robbery," said the Belfast Newsletter. "Heist could have major political implications," ran the editorial. The robbery "has serious implications for the standing of Sinn Féin in the political process and the formation of a totally inclusive devolved administration at Stormont."

Meanwhile in the South, if the focus was different, the message was much the same, "SF/IRA had hired slain Lusk gunman," announced the Sunday Independent. Garda marksmen had shot dead two petty criminals during an attempted robbery of a post office and somehow the IRA was to blame.

Attempts to scapegoat republicans appear to have become a national pastime. In the South, the right-wing media apparently hoped to pre-empt any subsequent questioning of Garda tactics following a stakeout, shoot-to-kill operation worthy of the RUC.

The Gardaí could hardly expect to justify the summary execution of petty thieves, only one of whom was armed and fired no shots, unless of course they were "sub-contracted by the IRA." "The Gardaí need support, not mealy-mouthed calls for an inquiry," declared Minister Willie O'Dea.

In the Six Counties, spurious media-led allegations of IRA criminality hope to let unionists off the hook when it comes to the real challenge of ending sectarian domination in favour of inclusive power sharing with nationalists. We do not believe that the Provos intend to wind down their criminal activities," said Sammy Wilson of the DUP.

"While that continues, they will find they will be excluded from any part in any institutions that we are involved in. The political consequences are well known and serious," said Wilson.

Unionists have never believed the notion of sharing, let alone power-sharing, with nationalists is anything other than criminal. For unionists, it was criminal when the homeless Gildernew family took the law into their own hands and squatted in a house already allocated by the unionist controlled council to a single Protestant woman.

It was criminal when the Civil Rights Movement demanded universal suffrage and an end to the sectarian allocation of homes and jobs. It was criminal when ordinary people defended Catholic areas from RUC-led sectarian mobs. It was criminal to resist British military occupation. It was criminal when political prisoners demanded recognition and rights.

It was criminal when lawyers like Pat Finucane and Rosemary Nelson used the law to defend human rights. It was criminal when Catholic communities contested sectarian Orange marches being forced through their areas. It was criminal when the children of Holy Cross walked to school. And now they would like to criminalise voting for Sinn Féin.

No wonder Sammy Wilson finds it difficult to envisage a time when nationalist and republican aspirations of equality and justice will fit his agenda. As for the latest robbery allegation, within 24 hours the media was in retreat. "The IRA was not behind a massive cash robbery in Belfast at the weekend," said Daily Ireland. "The PSNI has yet to blame anyone but it is understood that an IRA operation is not a major line of inquiry."

"The IRA is not the main suspect behind a major robbery of a chemist in Belfast city centre," reported the Irish News. "News that the IRA was not the primary focus of the police investigation came after some initial media speculation hinted at Provisional involvement."

Front-page banner headlines declaring speculation as established fact cannot, in all seriousness, be described as 'hinting'. But while the lies are big, the retractions remain small. Meanwhile, unionist politicians were busy making the most of the opportunity created for them by the media.

Speaking in the British House of Commons, Nigel Dodds of the DUP welcomed an indication from Tony Blair that "he is willing to consider a way forward without Sinn Féin.

"It is time for the democratic parties to move on as quickly as possible in light of the results of the general and local government elections which demonstrate that the vast majority of people support an exclusively peaceful and democratic way forward," said Dodds.

"There can be no fudge between democracy and terror and the DUP is determined that stunts and statements designed to take pressure off Sinn/IRA will not succeed. The days of IRA words gaining them access to government in Northern Ireland are over."

Meanwhile, UUP Assembly member Danny Kennedy challenged the British PM to "put his money where his mouth is" and take immediate action to restore the institutions. Kennedy said Blair should exclude Sinn Féin and allow the rest of the democratic parties to get on with delivering accountable and stable government.

Just how democracy can be delivered by disenfranchising the majority of the nationalist electorate and excluding the largest nationalist party in the north remained unclear.

So there we have it. It's taking place right before our very eyes. The media is no longer reflecting political opinion; it is actively creating a political climate in which the aspirations of the Good Friday Agreement and its promise of inclusivity and equality are being eroded away.

It's a kind of daylight robbery.

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